Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 02/18/2013


Why we should read...

    `Wounds of Armenia' by Khachadour Abovian
    (Selected Works, pp720, 1984, Yerevan, Armenia)

Armenian News Network / Groong
February 18, 2013

by Eddie Arnavoudian


No education in modern Armenian literature, or society, is complete
without a thorough study of this veritable tour de force. Khatchadour
Abovian's `Wounds of Armenia', written in 1841 but published for the
first time only in 1858, a full decade after its author's death, was
and remains a seminal novel - artistically, socially and politically.
`Wounds of Armenia' is an epic affirmation of the spirit of hope and
freedom that can inspire a whole people in the living of their lives.
It is one of the earliest and most significant fictional statements of
the credo of the democratic Armenian national revival.
 
Determined to communicate his vision to the common people, Abovian was
also revolutionary in his choice of language. In this, the first
modern Armenian novel, he abandons a classical Armenian incomprehensible
to the masses and writes instead in their own vernacular, doing so
beautifully and so raising a pillar for modern literary eastern
Armenian. Its very literary style, the blending of narrative prose and
epic poetry, the combination of modern realism with the traditions of
popular story telling speaks of the emergence of a particularly
Armenian novelistic tradition, one alas that was not fully developed,
as future writers appropriated the form of a very different Russian
and European novel.
 
The entire structure of modern Armenian national ambition is visible
through the novel - the aspiration for independence from colonial
rule, the critique of the obscurantism of the feudal Armenian Church
and its gross mis-education (comparing the Armenian clergy's so-called
educational regime poorly with what is judged to be the superior
Islamic education of their neighbours), the Church's exploitative role
and its services to foreign conquerors, the critique of corrupt money
that destroys social solidarity, the blight of passivity in the face
of domestic and foreign oppression, internationalist solidarity (with
native Americans in this instance) and the enunciation of a patriotism
free of all chauvinist taint, as well as, and here a weakness, that
enduring Armenian Russophile political orientation that sought the
replacement of Ottoman or Persian rule with what was regarded as the
more benign Russian authority.
 
Set in the era of the 1826-1828 Russo-Persian war, `Wounds of Armenia'
follows the fortunes of its protagonist Aghassi, a fun-loving, jovial
but also rebellious and defiant youth. A constant thorn in the side of
the local village and Church leadership, he will not tolerate
stultified, superstitious, oppressive and life-denying authority of
either foreign state or domestic elites. At the novel's outset we see
his life radically changing following his militant encounter with
agents of a Persian lord attempting to abduct a beautiful local
girl. Forced to go on the run, a gripping tale unfolds of Aghassi's
transition from fugitive outlaw to leader of an armed guerrilla group
and freedom fighter against the Persian occupation.
 
Aghassi, the first freedom-fighter in modern Armenian literature, is
depicted in the tradition of an epic hero embodying monumentally the
urge for freedom and joy, the delight in life and in nature, together
with a readiness to resist all that obstructs it.  He puts up with no
power or authority that stifles. Aghassi is a universal type, his
patriotism in this novel never a function of abstract nationality, but
always of an essential humanity. Concern for and protection of
community, care for family, relatives and neighbours, not bombastic
slogans drive his resistance to foreign rule. He opposes Persian
authority not in the name of any grandiose nationalist ideology but
because he wants his family and his community to be able to live with
dignity that he feels is the right of all men and women.
 
Is Aghassi an authentic hero? Does his depiction have the same
persuasiveness and the same vitality as that of the Armenian village
so brilliantly brought to life in Abovian's reconstruction of rural
eastern Armenia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries? The answer
is a resounding yes. Aghassi the protagonist's epic human proportion,
his heroic traits are far from being idealised inventions. They are in
concentrated poetic form expressions of a historically conditioned
authentic Armenian personality then emerging onto the stage and that
would come to prominence from the 1860s, most particularly in the form
of the armed guerrillas fighting to defend the lives and homes of the
peasantry.
 
Aghassi accurately mirrors features of the late 19th century Armenian
guerrilla movement. Abovian was no prophet. But he did have that
brilliant talent for grasping social processes at work. So, tracing
Aghassi's passage from enthusiastic village youth to defiant outlaw
and bandit and then to a fully-fledged freedom fighter, he accurately
describes the trajectory that was to be followed by men such as
Andranik, Murat, Gevorg Chavush, Serop Aghpyour and scores of others,
a trajectory to be later summed up theoretically by Eric Hobsbawm in
his admirable `Guerrillas'.
 
Like Aghassi these men and women were also primarily from rural
society and stood up to assert their individual and community
rights. Like Aghassi they were among the `new men/women' in Armenian
life. As significant as Aghassi's personal qualities are so too is his
origin from among the common people. In early romantic Armenian
literature the figure that appears holding the flag of national
freedom or resistance was usually derived from the aristocratic
nobility as they appeared in ancient Armenian histories. Not with
Abovian. Even as he lauds ancient heroes for their qualities of
grandeur, courage and audacity, for a role model he turns to the class
he recognised as the foundation for Armenian nationhood - the
peasantry.
 
The progressive vision of `Wounds of Armenia' suffers however a
weakness that to this day dogs and debilitates Armenian political
action. In his passionate pro-Russian orientation that saw a Russian
occupation of Armenia as a stage in national emancipation, Abovian
follows the disastrous trail of dependency politics formulated in
modern times by Israel Ori. But there is perhaps one decisive and
positive difference. In Abovian there is no vision of a state
fashioned in the image of ancient Armenian Kingdoms. Unlike Ori,
Abovian did not see Russian rule as a prelude to the restoration of
some presumed ancient monarchical order that would privilege an elite
of aristocrats and of merchants, the class he represented. For Abovian
Russian rule was to be only a first step to emancipation, a step
facilitating the education, enlightenment and progress of the common
man and woman of every nationality, something deemed impossible within
Ottoman or Persian state jurisdiction.
 
It is in this connection that one of the most attractive features of
`Wounds of Armenia' emerges. For all of Abovian's indubitable patriotic
and nationalist ambition there is no suggestion whatsoever of any
anti-Turkish, anti-Persian, anti-Muslim prejudice or distortion.
Aghassi does raise arms in the name of an ethnically pure Armenian
state. Abovian's ambition was not the formation of a state with no
place for Turk or Kurd or Persian now inhabiting historical Armenian
lands. Like Armenians, other Muslims and Christians, Turks, Kurds and
Persians, would all together in the first instance also be drawn into
Russian rule by the Tsarist occupation of the Caucuses and would enjoy
all the benefits assumed to be available to Armenians. They would
thereafter again together and in harmony partake of their respective
independent national development within a wider Caucasian unity.
 
In such qualities of humanist universalism this story of Armenian
liberation tells truths about the lives of oppressed people
internationally. `Wounds of Armenia' is in addition a timely polemical
weapon against the contemporary epidemic of sectarian nationalism and
religious fundamentalism. Today, more than 150 years after its first
publication, in a vernacular now almost incomprehensible, `Wounds of
Armenia' remains instructive, illuminating and even inspiring. Dare to
meet the challenge of its remote vernacular. You will not regret it.


--
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.
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